Scientists believe there may be nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, somewhere in space.
As scientists from the University of California Riverside suggest in a new paper published in Astrophysics Journalthe concept that space could hide this drug is a new indicator for determining whether or not a planet is habitable.
“Few researchers have seriously considered nitrous oxide,” UCR astrobiologist Eddie Schwieterman said in a news release. “We believe this may be a mistake.”
Schwieterman and his team at UC Riverside’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences calculated how regularly living organisms produce nitrous oxide, and then fed that data into a planetary model.
Laughing gas in space?
They then determined that habitable exoplanets with nitrogen oxide-rich atmospheres could be detected by technologies such as the James Webb Space Telescope.
Although there are some non-biological situations that produce nitrogen oxide, such as the small amount released by lightning, the UCR team considered this possibility in their modeling and noted that lightning also releases nitrogen dioxide, which could be detected in small amounts and used to rule out a planet.
Others who have considered nitrous oxide as a biosignature have pointed out, as noted in the press release, that this compound does not exist in large quantities in Earth’s atmosphere, despite the billions of life forms that live here. But Schweiterman has an answer for that too, he writes Futurism.
Exoplanets with nitrogen oxide-rich atmospheres could be detected by the Webb Telescope
“This conclusion does not account for periods in Earth’s history when oceanic conditions would have allowed for a much greater biological release of nitrous oxide,” the astrobiologist said.
“Conditions during those times could mirror where an exoplanet is.”
With JWST providing the largest space data collection capabilities to date, the UCR team hopes that scientists will begin to take the nitric oxide hypothesis as a biosignature seriously and broaden their horizons.